Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In-Ear Monitors

For those who don't know what I'm talking about, IEM's (In Ear Monitors) are a whole new approach for live sound monitoring.

So the old school way works like this: 

I'm standing, on stage, next to a drumkit, blasting away at full volume.

I'm playing electric guitar, and of course, the electric guitar makes no sound at all without an amplifier.
So I put my amp on a stand to get it up close to my ears, then I crank it up to an equal volume level as the drum kit, so I can hear it.

To complicate things more, I'm singing.
Obviously, next to a drum kit blasting away, and my guitar amp being a noisy noisy loud thing, I cannot hear myself sing, at all. So I need yet another sound source, a monitor speaker on the stage in front of me, with my voice fed to it, cranked up to an equal level as the drums.

It gets worse. For one song, I'm singing, but not playing guitar at all. For that song, I am singing solo with just backing from a keyboard.

I need to hear the keyboard, so I can sing (A) in tune and (B) in time, so that is fed into my monitor, and cranked up to an equal volume as my vocals. That all adds up to a lot of sound coming at me.

I've just painted a fairly bleak picture, but it gets even worse. On any standard Sunday, we have 8+ singers and musicians on stage, all with the same problems, all with blaring loud amps and stage monitors.

So what we have is a bunch of noise on stage. Everything has to be turned up LOUD, just so I can hear the bare minimum things that I need to hear to get my job as a worship leader done.

This is a thing we techos call (not very cleverly) 'Stage Volume' or 'Stage Wash'.

Now, stage volume doesn't sound good. The congregation hears it, but not directly, as the monitor speakers are pointing away from them.
By the time it gets to their ears, it's bounced off the roof and walls.
It sounds bassy, muddy, flat and just plain nasty. But still LOUD.

Now we introduce another element, our friend the FOH mixer or sound man/lady.
They have to create a mix for the congregation to hear clearly, but GLORY BE! the room is already filled with muddy, nasty stage sound bouncing around.

So they do the only thing they can do - turn the house sound up LOUDER. That way, the nice clear direct house sound covers up or masks the muddy stage sound. It sounds OK out front - but it is louder than it needs to be. This creates complaints from some people. And if you bring the volume down, it just sounds terrible. The vocals become soo muddy, you can't even tell what the words are half the time.
Just what we want in church, right?

WOW, you say. 'Ben, that is depressing. Is that really what you have to deal with as a sound tech?'

Yes. At. Every. Single. Gig. I've. Ever. Done.

But, thankfully, technology moves on. Enter, our savior, the IEM system!

The IEM system has three parts.

1) Transmitter. This bad boy takes a feed from the sound desk and converts it into radio waves
2) Receiver. This is a pack-of-cards sized, battery powered bodypack that you wear on your belt. It receives the radio signal from the transmitter
3) Ear Buds. These are tiny speakers that plug into your bodypack to play the music.
You can use cheap iPod headphones, good quality ones, or even have custom earpieces made up.

So that's how it works. Imagine everyone on stage has their own system. Now there are no monitor speakers or amplifiers on stage at all. If guitarists still want to use an amp, it can be side stage in a sound proofed box. All the musicians and singers can hear themselves in total clarity.

Because their is no speakers on stage, the stage noise is reduced to drums, vocals and acoustic guitar. Electric guitar, bass and keyboards, are all silent - except for in the muso's IEM.

Now the FOH soundie can breathe a sigh of relief - he/she no longer has to worry about all the mud and sloppy stage noise. They can build a nice simple, clean audio mix, at a MUCH LOWER volume, and everyone is happy. Heck, the congregation can even hear themselves sing over the ruckus now!

But there are other benefits as well.

So, returning back to my first illustration - let's take a look at those sound levels, shall we?

Standing next to a drumkit?  Approx 76 dB

+ loud guitar amp = Approx 82 dB

+ loud vocal microphone = Approx  88 dB

+ loud keyboard = Approx 94 dB

According to http://www.dangerousdecibels.org, 94dB can cause permanent hearing damage in an astonishing 60 minutes.
These audio levels are very normal on stages playing amplified church music. And we do hours on end!
Rock concerts can easily break 110 dB. So can a really loud ipod.
Yes, we are murdering our hearing week after week, hour after hour.

With IEM, the earbuds give you physical hearing protection against all the ambient noise, and you can have just what you need at a lower volume, right in your ears. You can easily get the noise down to 80ish dB - or even less.

I've noticed my hearing getting worse recently - I have to get people to repeat themselves occasionally. 
I'm hearing a constant high pitched ring in bed or very quiet places. 
After a full Sunday, playing 3 services + 2 rehearsals = total of 6ish hours of amplified music, my ears are sore, and the ringing is noticeable.

I've been playing amplified rock-style church music now for 10 years. 
I've been careful with my hearing, often wearing good quality earplugs, but clearly not careful enough. 
I'm 24 years old, an musician and sound engineer, and I'm already suffering hearing loss!

So I shelled out for a IEM system, on my own buck. Man, it has made a difference! 
After a full day of worship services on IEM, my ears don't feel trashed. They aren't ringing anywhere near as badly as they were before. And I've never heard my voice so loud and clear before. 
I'm singing more in tune, and I'm feeling more connected with the music while playing as well.
(The unit I brought is a Sennheiser IEM300 G2, if your interested) 

So, my mission is to share my knowledge. If you are gigging, please use hearing protection. 
If you can possibly afford IEM for yourself, do it. You won't regret it. 

And worship team family, you'll be glad to know, I'm working on a proposal for us here at EIC that will get the band on IEM, ASAP.





  1. As long as you promise to not just DI the bass :P Unless it's a really good bass with a really good sound guy, but even then I'm probably about as mortified by the idea of a purely DI'd bass as you are by the idea of purely DI-ing the gat and then putting the sound guy in charge of your delay and tone :P Still, it seems to be widely accepted that DI-ing the bass is something you can get away with.

  2. At church we usually only run one or two monitors, one for whoever is leading worship (well all the singers really) and one for the drummer. But they can be quite loud at times, I haven't really noticed any stage noise, but you can't really describe our church as a beautiful sounding room. In fact half the time churches, often purpose build, sound terrible. The chapel at East-West springs to mind. But anyway, very nice blog Ben. I dream of the day that everyone everywhere has their own earpiece.

  3. Probably a slightly different vibe at your church Dan, with a smaller room, and probably a drummer playing a bit softer, but I bet you're still experiencing some pretty high volume levels, especially if you're standing close to the drums.

    I dream of the day when everyone has their own IEM's too Dan - but I got so mad realizing that my hearing was just melting away week after week that I finally got some.

  4. Benny, Great post.

    Tommo, as for bass and electrics. We moved all of ours off stage. We have 2 isolation boxes with fans, led lights, 2 inputs and 2 outputs. We run a line through our floor boxes directly to the iso boxes. We get fantastic amp sounds from louder sources than they could have ever been on stage. As for the bass, we have a bass rig back stage as well that has a direct out of the head and a speaker bypass. We get the same treated bass sound without the extra energy on stage. There is also a product called hotplate that you can place between and amp and a cabinet that lets you turn the tubes all the way up and then attenuate the signal on the way to the amp. You get the full tube sound and still have the ability to mic the cabinet and turn it down. (If you stage is on IEMs, you still get a great tone out of that mic'd cabinet that way.)